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Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’

By Luke Goodsell
The contrary director’s 30-year quest comes to a suitably ludicrous end

Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Even by his own proudly contrarian standards, it’s hard to recall a time when Terry Gilliam has been more out of step with the prevailing cultural moment. The rat’s-tail-rockin’ 78-year-old filmmaker hasn’t had anything resembling a hit, commercial or otherwise, for the better part of two decades, and after finally, improbably unveiling his long-gestating passion project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, at Cannes last year, he went and ran his mouth in response to the BBC’s performative diversity spiel with some disastrous comments. Gilliam’s never been afraid to speak his mind, but this seemed like a one-way ticket to career cancellation.

At this point, the persona of Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century literary fabulist escaping the modern world via the delusions of his mind – seems less an analogy for Gilliam than an inseparable part of the director’s DNA. Both on screen and off, the filmmaker has always been positioned, often via his own belligerent self-mythology, as an anachronistic dreamer in trapped in the tyranny of the present, an artist wrestling with old-timey notions of fantasy in his very own Age of Iron. Gilliam’s filmography is full of wild-eyed characters battling a cruel contemporary world, and stories that pitch romantics against bureaucrats, time travellers against institutions, himself against big studios (the feud over his 1985 signature work, Brazil, is so notorious it’s gone down as one of cinema’s great battles for artistic control). In this era of hyper-explanation and accountability for every perceived infraction upon consensus attitudes, Gilliam might be forgiven for wondering if an unfiltered imagination can even exist, let alone flourish.

The director’s career preoccupations are certainly baked into his new film with an unprecedented level of reflexivity. Nearly three agonised decades in the making, it’s a minor miracle that a movie that once seemed as fanciful as its eponymous crackpot’s tall tales actually exists. Conceived all the way back in 1989, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote originally began shooting in 2000, starring Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort, before infamously falling apart thanks to various acts of God and man alike (the trail of wreckage is cringingly surveyed in the 2002 production documentary, Lost in La Mancha). Since then, Gilliam’s white whale surfaced and sank so many times that it’d become an industry punchline; a cursed project that made the news whenever one veteran lead expired and another was cast (including the late Rochefort and John Hurt, both to whom the new movie is dedicated).

The finally finished film opens on a high-budget, Spanish countryside shoot for a Quixote-themed vodka commercial, where the thirty-something director Toby (Adam Driver), grotesque in white pants, a beaded necklace and man-bun, is barking at a suffocating menagerie of Euro-producers, throwing away storyboards and flailing in exasperation in a manner that vividly evokes the tenor of Lost in La Mancha. Giant fibreglass heads and suited moneymen leer from the sidelines in silent mockery.

Mid shoot, Toby is mysteriously sent a talisman from his distant past: a DVD of his long-forgotten grad-student film, also called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, shot in arty black and white as a woozy pastiche of Pasolini and Gilliam and starring an old Spanish shoemaker, Javier (Jonathan Pryce), as the knight-errant. Commercial hack promptly experiences artistic crisis, and Toby rides off in frantic search for Javier, only to discover the old man has since drifted into the delusion that he really is Don Quixote – and that Toby is his dim-witted sidekick, Sancho Panza.

The combination of the great Pryce, clad in renaissance armour and bellowing in a ludicrous accent, and the lanky Driver, wearing a poncho and patent-leather loafers, astride a donkey, is the sort of amusing, slapstick-y incongruity in which Gilliam revels. Soon the pair is on the run across the garbage-strewn Spanish landscape, duelling windmills that might be giants, questing for Quixote’s long-lost love, and slowly excavating Toby’s creative soul. “Either you are very naïve, or you are very crazy,” Toby’s former crush, Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), tells him in a flashback. “Well, you know, an artist has to be,” he replies. As if to deflate the risk of such pretence, Gilliam isn’t above having Driver subsequently make out with a sheep – as usual, his fundamental inability to take anything completely seriously is a blessing (especially, as a dear friend noted, for the sheep).

Quixote can’t help but underwhelm when stacked against its legendary history, and yet in a strange way it’s precisely what anyone might have hoped for: a realisation of Gilliam’s vision that reflects upon, and reframes, the process that went into its creation. The film’s closest stablemate in that sense might be last year’s posthumous Orson Welles salvage job The Other Side of the Wind – both tangle on screen with the elements of their assembly, and centre around a pseudo art film-within-film. Even more than Wind, Quixote exists as evidence of that old filmmaking cliché that every film is a documentary of its own making.

Of course, Gilliam is no Welles (and vice versa), and the former Python’s other side of the windmill is nothing if not an echo chamber of the director’s familiar concerns. Javier/Quixote and Toby/Sancho neatly encompass Gilliam’s creative push and pull: deranged idealism versus commercial compromise; mystic wisdom versus ugly, worldly reality; unhinged abandon versus crass financial imperatives. The more Gilliam ups the Cervantes the more he spirals into his trademark doodles of disorientation; Quixote’s hallucinations beget the filmmaker’s beloved Dutch tilts and wide-angle lenses, as though the world were being surveyed by some drunken, gutter-dwelling alien frog. At their worst, Gilliam’s impulsive formal tics can scan as gratingly wacky, but here, the more cacophonous and unstuck the film becomes, the clearer his lunatic vision.

Quixote’s fantastical ravings also showcase one of Gilliam’s sometimes-overlooked talents: his uncanny ability to evoke the tumult of dreams. While he’s often lumped together with lesser purveyors of quirk, Gilliam’s treatment of adjacent realities is rarely whimsical or indulgently odd; he collapses elements of the everyday with the far-flung reaches of the subconscious, the grim and the absurd, to conjure something that captures both the madness of the mind and that of the world at large. The final sequence of his 1981 kids’ adventure, Time Bandits, with its dingy supernatural labyrinth of Magritte-cow-skull sentinels and cheesy game-show hosts and exploding parents, is as vivid in my memory as any of those from my “real” childhood.

In Quixote, a fairytale forest procession is suddenly interrupted by a chattering cell phone, a pair of security goons in Ray-Bans ride tandem on horseback, and a puffed-up medieval knight – who may as well have stepped straight from the shrubbery of The Fisher King or Monty Python and the Holy Grail – wears chintzy chain mail and rides a horse festooned with compact discs. This inter-era silliness is a Gilliam staple that goes back to the surrealism-by-way-of-MAD magazine of his Flying Circus collage animation, and here, parsing hundreds of years of history in sketches as scrambled as his protagonists’ grip on reality, he gives the impression of a Europe stuck between dimensional dials – equal parts renaissance architecture and nylon sweatpants. On more than one occasion I was reminded of a scene in Jacques Rivette’s quotidian Paris fantasy Le Pont Du Nord (1981), in which enigmatic sprite Pascale Ogier does battle with a rusted children’s playhouse she understands to be a fire-breathing dragon (a scene itself reminiscent of the clanging beast in Gilliam’s Jabberwocky).

Might the 21st century be little more than Quixote’s 17th-century nightmare? The film’s ever-folding realities are pockmarked by unpleasant reminders of the present, a Europe in which a dispossessed underclass ekes out its existence among the graffiti-strewn ruins of ancient homes, paranoid Americans instantly equate Islam with terrorism, and rapacious movie producers mock local customs in the pursuit of a deal. “You and your film destroyed good people,” a pair of Spanish locals accuses Toby, and one wonders to what extent these exchanges suggest Gilliam’s own self-interrogation.

This critique of bald commercialism serves to bolster some of Quixote’s blustery narrative turns, too. It’s arguable that the film’s shrill last act, with its leering Russian capitalist and indulgence of tiresomely heterosexual save-the-damsel heroics, is offered less at face value than as a parody of such hoary movie tropes – reinforcing the metatextual japery at work. “Humour him,” Stellan Skarsgård’s advertising executive barks of Quixote’s antics at one point. “I need to clinch this account.” It doesn’t take much to conclude that the moneyman, as so often happens, is Gilliam’s ultimate movie villain.

These final moments also carry an inescapable poignancy, considering that Quixote may well be one of the last things Gilliam manages to put on screen. Calling it an anticlimax does it a disservice when there’s so much of the filmmaker’s soul and craft in the finished product, so many of Gilliam’s fascinating, clashing impulses – visionary excess, blundering self-sabotage – bouncing off walls in ways that refuse to be tamed. One late scene in Quixote depicts a village pyre onto which the local circus performers toss old objects for a bonfire to symbolise letting go of the past. A similar sense of liberation electrifies the film’s closing moments as the men’s insanity comes full circle, and Gilliam seems to suggest that life is but a nonsensical experience to which people have tried to append collective meaning and coherency.

Nothing matters, everyone’s mad, and that’s fine.

“You think explaining explains anything?” Quixote scolds Toby at one point, and it might as well be Gilliam’s kiss-off to contemporary mores. “You have a very simple view of life.”

 

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is in cinemas April 11.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

@timebombtown

Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

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